BLUEsat AUV

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) is BLUEsat’s youngest project – officially founded in 2020. The team was formed by the remaining members of BLUEsat’s Drone Project, who after gaining sufficient experience, desired to tackle a new challenge of the likes UNSW had never seen before.

 

For years, scientists have used ground-based telescopes and data collected from the Galileo, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions as evidence that beneath the thick ice crust lies an ocean of water. One so vast it could potentially contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans combined. On June 12, 2019 NASA announced that the yellowish patches on the surface were in fact sodium chloride, better known as table salt. Europa’s salty oceans could have more in common with our own oceans than previously thought. But what is even more exciting than table salt is that Europa may hold the answer to an age old question; Is there life beyond Earth?

This hypothesis has fueled a surge in NASA’s investment into mission that will travel to Europa to find some answers. First on the list of things-to-find will be plumes of water that may be rushing out 160 km above the surface of the moon. November 2019 already saw the announcement of the discovery of water vapour using a spectroscope based in Hawaii. If they do exist, a spacecraft could pass through these plumes and analyse the vapour in orbit, much like the Cassini spacecraft that flew through water plumes above Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

November also brought forth images of a prototype aquatic rover called BRUIE, designed to use buoyancy to anchor itself to the underside of the ice crust as it looks for life. In August, Europa’s Clipper mission was confirmed with a launch readiness date of 2025. 2022 may see the launch of the JUICE mission that will explore Jupiter and its three icy moons, including Europa. In June 2019, a Europa Lander Mission Concept Overview was released [https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/web/absscicon/02-AbsSciCon-Mission-Overview-13Jun2019-no-BU.pdf] , with the goal of finding life not underneath the ice, but trapped within.

With all this excitement, our team at BLUEsat couldn’t help but begin planning to develop our own Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) that could potentially be sent up to help with exploration on Europa or even other celestial bodies such as Enceladaus.

The AUV Team will begin laying the foundation down in the Singapore AUV Challenge (SAUVC), which we plan to attend in 2021. The competition will test our team’s ability to devise a fully autonomous vehicle capable of localisation, object identification and propulsion. It will need to be able to execute predefined tasks without any tethered or wireless communication, ranging from avoiding obstacles to locating targets to drop objects onto.

Previous Mission – Drone Team (2018 – 2019)

BLUEsat's first iteration drone on a test flight inside the electrical engineering building at UNSW.

BLUEsat UNSW’s Drone Team was initially formed in August 2018, with a vision of creating a drone that could fly in the Martian atmosphere, map the local environment and interact with the rover built by the Off-World Robotics Team. The inspiration behind this concept came in no small part from NASA’s announcement of their development of a small unmanned helicopter that would explore Mars, alongside the agency’s 2020 rover mission.

 

small drone on a table with blue propellers
Drone Kit – Early Development

Initially, the team decided to replicate those conditions by attempting to fly the drone as high as 100,000 feet above sea level, where the air density would be similar to the Martian atmosphere. For the initial prototype, an altitude target of 6,000 meters was decided on as it was more manageable. Unfortunately, the prototype design was found to be too costly and problematic. Moreover, the team recognised that a drone designed for operation in Mars would remain a proof of concept with few real-world applications and felt that a more localised and applicable solution would be both more engaging and technically-challenging for the team. Hence, the plans for a Mars drone were put on hold indefinitely, and instead the team decided to develop its drone making and operating skills by buying and assembling a drone kit with pre-made components.